My Life on the Race Beat

When “minority affairs” become the center of coverage

In 2015, my husband and I settled in Philadelphia. His work brought us there; I’d spent the previous two years as a freelance journalist and welcomed the move. Philadelphia, America’s fifth-largest city, has a large black population with a rich history: During slavery, it was a crucial stop on the Underground Railroad and home to the largest and wealthiest free black population in the country. During the Great Migration, Philadelphia was among the most popular destinations for black people fleeing the oppression of sharecropping. Today it has the unfortunate distinction of being the poorest big city in America; in addition to having a sizeable representation of the educated black middle class, there are also large numbers of people of color in deep poverty. Looking around, I grew curious; when I saw that the Associated Press was hiring an urban affairs reporter, I applied.

I had been covering stories in that realm for years, at one point at the AP; I got the job. I knew that the title was shorthand for coverage of minority communities, and Philadelphia proved to be a ripe setting. The city had overcrowded prisons; I reported on a push for bail reform. When Bill Cosby, a native son, became the subject of sexual assault allegations, I chronicled the local response. As the country wrestled with what to do about racist symbols in public places, I tracked the fight in my backyard, at Princeton University, where students sought to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its school of public policy. On a daily basis, I followed urban violence; in Philadelphia, the  equivalent of a mass shooting happens every month.

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A year into my job, I was invited to join a team at the AP focused on experiences of people of color across the country. My territory grew. I covered national bright spots—the #blackgirlmagic dominating the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, the opening of the capital’s first museum dedicated to black history and culture—and ongoing tensions—between the black community and police and, at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, the future of the black electorate. Around this time, Donald Trump was on the campaign trail asking black Americans, “What the hell do you have to lose?” 

The “race beat”—known variously as “urban affairs,” “minority affairs,” or sometimes without a title—emerged during the tumultuous days of American segregation. The role’s importance in national culture, and in newsrooms, has waxed and waned over generations. But as race is an omnipresent force in American life, race coverage, which requires the same sort of expertise as business or education journalism, is essential to reporting on who we are as a society. 

In November 2017, I was named AP’s national writer for race and ethnicity. The job represented the highest calling for me as a black journalist, which I unapologetically consider myself to be. The appointment also cemented my sense that, throughout my career, long before my role as a race reporter was made official, it has been crucial for me to seek out stories that help bear witness to and for my community—and then, in the newsroom, push past the comfort of some white gatekeepers. So much of journalism is about the choices we make about who will be seen and heard; the race beat is recognition of the fact that images and voices have seldom told the stories of my community. I have aimed to change that. 

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The United States has always grappled with conflicts related to race. For some two centuries, there have been black people writing their stories: Ida B. Wells, Simeon Booker, Thomas Morris Chester. The experiences of these and other reporters have been foundational to my career, as their fortitude and clear-eyed approach to exposing racism—often in the face of danger—have steeled me when the weight of the job can feel heavy. They wouldn’t necessarily have considered themselves to have been on the “race beat,” but in many cases they knew that they were what used to be known as Race Men and Women. Sympathetic white journalists joined them, from Ralph McGill, of The Atlanta Constitution, to Gene Roberts, who covered the civil rights movement as a correspondent at The New York Times before becoming editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

“In the fifties, virtually every newsroom in America was white,” Roberts recalls. Many of the first black journalists whose job it was to focus on the black community got their start in mainstream media covering the unrest of the 1960s. Most white reporters attempting to cover urban America were met with skepticism by its residents, who typically encountered journalists only in times of crisis—as they were coming to cover crime or riots. Mainstream newsrooms rarely sought to depict the fullness of black life, only the tragedies. Race beat reporters were borne not out of a respect for diversity, but out of necessity.

In the late sixties, the treatment of black communities by major news outlets became a focus of the Kerner Commission. Otto Kerner, the governor of Illinois, had been tapped by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the underlying causes of racial tension in the United States, and to recommend solutions. With a team of 11, Kerner identified more than 150 riots and other incidents of unrest in the first nine months of 1967 that resulted from white racism. “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget,” the Kerner report stated, “is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” 

The race beat was explicitly identified as a means to understand and prevent violence brought on by racial conflict. Among the commission’s recommendations to the media was expanding coverage of black communities by establishing a “permanent assignment of reporters familiar with racial and urban and racial affairs.” The commission also urged newsrooms to “publish newspapers and produce programs that recognize the existence and activities of Negroes as a group within the community and as a part of the larger community” and, to accomplish this, “recruit more Negroes into journalism and broadcasting and promote those who are qualified to positions of significant responsibility.”

The message resonated. “Most newsrooms in the seventies had a visible black reporter presence,” Roberts says. “It might not have been enough, but compared to the fifties, it was significant.” Black reporters were not necessarily put on the race beat, however. Many of his hires at the Inquirer started off working in largely white suburban neighborhoods; like other African Americans of the era, many were trying to stave off the stigma of affirmative action by proving that they could cover anything.

“So many folks treat race as an oddity or quirk to be analyzed or studied or learned about in an almost cynical way. We’re not an odd spectacle.”

The Kerner Commission, which focused on black-white relations, did not account for other marginalized groups. Around the same time, the rise of the Chicano movement, also known as the Mexican American civil rights movement, elevated the national consciousness of Latinx identity. A Chicano press emerged and, in the late sixties and early seventies, dozens of newspapers across the country formed to cover that fight for equality; some Latinx journalists came to be hired to work in mainstream newsrooms where protests took place, including Los Angeles and Houston. In 1984, the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for “Latinos,” a 27-part series that allowed millions of readers to see themselves with dignity for the first time in the pages of one of the country’s most influential newspapers.

Russell Contreras, my colleague at the AP who writes about race with a focus on Latinxs and African Americans, says that Latinx reporters have yet to catch up to their African-American counterparts; there are several black columnists at major newspapers, for instance, but scarcely any Latinxs. A degree in Latin American studies or a semester abroad in Mexico can be enough for white reporters who speak Spanish to get jobs covering his Latinx communities. “Even though black history has been marginalized, it’s much more integrated than the other groups,” Contreras says. “When you talk about race, you start with the black experience, because that’s unfinished business. From my perspective, I get it, but that does exclude the rest of us. The discussion about race—especially in journalism—is complex. And we don’t want complex. We want black and white, literally.” 

Frank Shyong, who covers Asian-American communities for the Los Angeles Times, says that much of who gets covered, and how, comes down to a numbers game. “There is a hierarchy to the newsworthiness of communities based on what’s going on right now,” he explains. “An increased awareness of police shootings or what Trump says about immigration—those types of justifications rarely come around for the Asian community. People can look at the audience and make the calculation.” That approach is shortsighted, he adds. “It’s a little depressing to see that the things that have been written about are still being written about now. I wonder what we’ve been able to teach people about these communities. Journalism should attack areas of misunderstanding, of controversy, and see if reporting and storytelling can change things.”

I am a daughter of Atlanta, the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., and of a black mother who survived segregation, finished college, and provided a fragile middle class life for her children. It wasn’t long after I knew that I wanted to be a journalist that I knew what kind of journalist I would be. On some level, however, I thought that the work of the race beat would be in covering a trajectory of progress and in chronicling the last vestiges of systemic inequality and hate.

In 2000, in Phoenix, I attended a convention the National Association of Black Journalists for the first time. I was 22, working at the Daily World. “A lot of us feel terrible that you are covering the same things we covered,” Paul Delaney, who helped start NABJ, told me. It was apparent that my preconceptions about advancement toward racial equality were mistaken.

Later, when I landed in the AP’s Atlanta bureau—as an intern, then for my first tour as an urban affairs reporter—I met Sonya Ross, also an Atlanta native, who grew up near where my grandparents lived. She sat in the same chair to which I was assigned, before moving on and up to Washington, DC, where she distinguished herself as a White House reporter. She was known for her coverage of civil rights, black politics, and the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. She was one of five reporters allowed aboard Air Force One after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I quickly drafted Ross as a mentor; her wisdom and guidance have served me well in my career.

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Recently, I asked Ross about my role at the AP. “I always viewed it as an area of coverage,” she says. But never a “beat” per se, nor an anthropological experiment. “So many folks treat race as an oddity or quirk to be analyzed or studied or learned about, in an almost cynical way,” she adds. “We’re not an odd spectacle that you must know about.” To cover race, in her view, is to account for realities  of the American experience. “Race coverage was everywhere, and they were good stories,” she says. “Race followed me to the White House and to global affairs.”

Yet half a century after the Kerner Commission advised newsrooms to cover black communities with attention and care, the report’s prescriptions have not been satisfactorily implemented. Ross and I, who have mostly white colleagues, have seen pushback against coverage that doesn’t align with mainstream beliefs about black people; at the same time, we have had to navigate distrusting black communities suspicious of our employer—and by extension, us. “We’re not doing a very good job of giving our historians enough to know about the demographic challenges happening right now,” Ross says. At a moment when “America has leadership that is quite antipathetic toward race, antagonistic even,” she adds, she wonders whether “this industry is going to accept that this country’s racial permutations are here to stay and are worthy of covering.”

Still, Ross believes that the level at which race is covered today, albeit imperfectly, represents a dramatic improvement from what existed at the start of her career. Whether or not this progress will hold, and be built upon, is something my peers and I wonder about often—just as we wondered, at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, what of his legacy would endure. We knew better than to believe that we live in a “post-racial” society, and we feared that the backlash against such an idea would get worse.

At the NABJ convention this summer, in Detroit, I discussed these questions with Akilah Johnson, one of my oldest and dearest colleagues. Johnson, who covers immigration for The Boston Globe, was about to fly to Stanford University, where she had been awarded a John S. Knight journalism fellowship. Johnson had gotten her start in 2001 as an editorial assistant at the Sun-Sentinel, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which had a race and demographics team that she thought she might join. When, several years later, Tribune, her employer’s parent company, slashed jobs to cut costs, diversity was a casualty. The team vanished, and with it, Johnson’s dream. “That used to influence so much of all of my work,” she recalls. 

Johnson and I had met as cub reporting fellows with Tribune’s minority editorial training program. She couldn’t have appreciated then exactly how fleeting that support would be. “I didn’t realize social justice was the lens I was looking at my work through at the time,” she says. Yet time and again, terms like cultural appropriation and white privilege get written off as identity politics by those who would rather not continue thinking about race. “Now those words, in some circles, have become pejorative to think about,” she says.

After more than a decade, we reunited, in 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, dodging tear gas canisters to document the emerging Black Lives Matter movement. As race reporters, we always feel a tremendous responsibility— mingled with a sense of guilt—to get our stories right; the scene in Ferguson was illuminated with urgency. “I feel like every story is a matter of life and death,  and I am not being hyperbolic,” Johnson says. There, like journalists of color so often do, she reckoned with her position in relation to the story. When we spoke at the convention in Detroit, we reflected on how, as black reporters, being on the race beat means shouldering entire communities. In many ways, it can feel like we’re writing for our lives, and to protect our family and friends. “We’re conditioned to say, ‘This isn’t about me’—but this was about us,” Johnson says. “You carry that with you in every story you write, whether you are fully conscious of it or acknowledge it, or not.”

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Errin Haines Whack is an award-winning journalist who is the National Writer for Race and Ethnicity at the Associated Press. She is based in Philadelphia.

TOP IMAGE: Illustration: Vidhya Nagarajan